If you can’t see the video click here
If you can’t see the video click here
One of the great things about teaching is that while some students pass by like mist in the night others remain connected forever. I get to watch them grow into their careers and cheer them on.
Its been three and a half years since I first designed and taught the Lean LaunchPad class and lots of water has gone under the bridge since then. I’ve taught hundreds of teams, the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps has taught close to 400 teams led by our nations top scientists, and the class is being taught around the world.
But I still remember a team from the first class, one which wanted to build a robotic lawnmower. It’s now been over 3 years since the team has left my classroom and I thought I’d share with you what the two founders, Jorge Heraud and Lee Redden, learned then and what they’re doing now.
The Autonomous Lawnmower
They called their company Autonomow. And they were absolutely convinced what the world needed was an auto-driving lawn mover for institutions with large green spaces.
You can see their first slide deck in class below (and here)
Like in all our Lean Launchpad classes we teach a combination of theory coupled with intense and immersive experiential learning outside the classroom. Students need to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week.
The next week they came back in class and presented this:
Each week we’d teach them about one more part of what makes up a business model. All teams struggle with finding product/market fit.
By week four their presentation looked like this:
Notice something different about the cover slide? Massive pivot. Like all great Silicon Valley companies they started with a technology and guessed who the customers will be. They’re almost always wrong. They could have never figured this out sitting inside a classroom writing a business plan.
At week five (see here) they were actually getting into farm fields wearing hip boots and overalls. Now they were figuring out how to create demand.
The Customer Development process, this relentless drive to turn hypotheses into facts is what makes this learning so rapid.
At week six they were trying to figure out their distribution channel (here) after another pivot. They got their minimal viable product (a machine vision platform) up and running in the lab.
At week seven (here) another pivot happened when farmers taught them about how to price their product. Instead of an of selling hardware they were selling a service.
BTW, notice that they were now dragging their machine vision platform through the farm fields! If there was ever any question of whether a minimal viable product can work for hardware, see what they say in their video below.
By week eight they were learning who they needed to partner with (see here). Most importantly they found a customer who taught them while weeding carrots was nice, thinning lettuce was where the money was.
After 9 weeks their final presentation looked like this.
When I teach in universities I’m not running an incubator. What I’m trying to do is to get students to learn a way of thinking about new ventures that will stick with them for life. And I try to do by having them teach themselves, rather than us teaching at them. Whether they start a company or not, I don’t keep score.
But some teams remain connected forever. I get to watch them grow into their careers and cheer them on. This was one of those teams. After class they took this idea and formed a company – Blue River Technology.
Over the last three years they turned their vision and PowerPoint slides into real hardware that solves real customer problems. And with 3 rounds of funding, including a grant from the National Science Foundation, they’ve raised $13 million.
Take a look and see what they’ve done.
If you can’t see the video click here
“The customers had way more insights then we had. They had been thinking about their own problems for so long…If you just go out and try to sell maybe you’ll find some buyers, but you won’t be learning about what you should be doing.”
Lee Redden – Blue River Technology
I’m off next week on the next great adventure. We’re going to launch the I-Corps @ NIH and change how our country commercializes life sciences.
In Oracle’s early days Kathryn Gould was the founding VP of Marketing, working there from 1982 to 1984. When I heard that Larry Ellison was stepping down as Oracle’s CEO I asked Kathryn to think about the skills she saw in a young Larry Ellison that might make today’s founders winners.
Though I haven’t talked to Larry face-to-face for 20 years, and haven’t worked at Oracle for 30 years, he’s the yardstick I’ve used to pick entrepreneurs all of these years since.
Larry had the DNA I’ve seen common with all the successful entrepreneurs I’ve backed in my 25 years of Venture Capital work—only he had a more exaggerated case than most. Without a doubt, Larry was the most potent entrepreneur I’ve known. It was a gift to be able to work with him and see him in action.
Here’s what was exceptional about Larry:
Potent Leadership Skill
Larry didn’t practice any kind of textbook management, but he was an intense communicator and inspiring leader. As a result, every person in the company knew what the goal was—world domination and death to all competitors. He often said, “It’s not enough to win—all others must fail.” And he meant it, but with a laugh.
It wasn’t as heavy as it sounds, but everyone got the point. We were relentless competitors. Even as the company grew from a handful of people when I started to about 150 when I left (yes, still ridiculously small) I observed that, every single person knew our mission.
This is not usual—startups that fail often have a lot of people milling around who don’t know what the goal is. In winning companies, everybody pulls in the same direction.
A corollary to Larry’s leadership style was that, at least in my day, he did it with great humor, lots of off-the-cuff funny stuff. He loved to argue, often engaging one of our talented VPs who had been captain of his school debate team. When we weren’t arguing intensely, we were laughing. It made the long hours pass lightly.
Huge Technical Vision
Larry always had a 10-year technical vision that he could draw on the whiteboard or spin like a yarn.
It wasn’t always perfect, but it was way more right than wrong, It informed our product development to a great degree and kept us working on more or less the right stuff. Back then he advocated for
The final proof of a compelling technical vision is that customers were interested—the phone was always ringing. Often it was people cold calling us, who had read something in a trade magazine and wanted to know more. What a gift! Not every startup gets to have this—but if you don’t, you’ve got a problem.
Pragmatic and Lean
Larry ascribed to the adage, “We don’t do things right, we do the right things.” I’m not sure if he ever actually said that, but it is what he lived.
In a startup you can’t do a great job of everything, you have to prioritize what is critically important, and what is “nice to have.” Larry didn’t waste time on “nice to have.”
I am a reformed perfectionist (reformed after those days) so often this didn’t sit well with me. I now realize it was the wisdom of a great entrepreneur. Basically if you didn’t code or sell, you were semi-worthless. (Which is why I had OEM sales as part of marketing—we had to earn our keep.)
This philosophy extended to all aspects of the company. We always had nice offices, but we didn’t mind crowding in. When I started we were in a small suite at 3000 Sand Hill Road. I would come to the office in the morning and clean up the junk food from the programmer who used my work area all night. This was cool!
Oh, and I should say, even though we were at 3000 Sand Hill, VCs kind of ignored us. They thought we were a little nuts. It took a long time for our market to develop, so Oracle wasn’t exactly a growth explosion in the early days. There we were, right under their noses!
Larry was loathe to sell any of the company stock; he generally took a dim view of VCs and preferred to bootstrap. (Sequoia Capital eventually invested just a little in us). Angel investor Don Lucas had his office above ours. I remember Larry telling me that every time we borrowed his conference room we had to pay Don $50. I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s what Larry said. I wonder if he took stock or cash.
Larry wasn’t always selling, didn’t even like salespeople half the time, but boy, when he decided to sell, he was unbeatable.
I’ll never forget sitting in an impressive conference room at a very large computer manufacturer that was prepared to not be all that interested in what we had to say.
Larry just blew them away. They had to re-evaluate their view on their database offering—and they eventually became a huge customer.
He reeled out that technical vision, described the product architecture in a way that computer science people found compelling and turned on the charm. It was neat to be in the room. I saw this a lot with Larry; the performance was repeated many times.
Hired the Smartest People
The old adage “A players hire A players, and B players hire C players” applies here. Larry often philosophized that we couldn’t hire people with software experience because there were hardly any software companies, so we just had to get the smartest bastards we could, and they’d figure it out.
I think he was particularly skilled at applying this to the technical team.
I remember a brilliant young programmer whom Larry allowed to live anywhere he wanted in the US or Canada, didn’t care about hours, where he was or any of that stuff. We just got him a network connection and that was it. This was unheard of back then, but we did it fairly often to get superstars. I remember when we hired Tom Siebel—Larry was so excited, telling me about this deadly smart guy we just hired in Chicago who was sitting in our conference room that very minute! I had to go meet him!
I should say that Larry looked for smarts in men and women—women have always had the opportunity to excel at Oracle. And now there’s Safra Catz—whom I never met, but even back in the ’80s I remember Larry telling me how smart she was.
He Had Some Quirks
Larry would sometimes take time out to think. He would just disappear for a few days, often without telling marketing people (who may have scheduled him for a press interview or a customer visit!), and return re-charged with a pile of ideas—many good, some not so much.
He liked to experiment with novel management ideas, like competing teams. He would set up some people to develop a product or go after a customer or whatever, and have competing teams trying to do the same thing. It’s always fun to experiment, though I never saw one of these fiascos succeed.
I remember one time he had his cowboy boots up on the desk, saying that we’d be bigger than Cullinet and we’d do it with 50 people, and only one salesperson. He was getting high on ideas. Only a computer historian would know Cullinet, an ancient database company that made it to $100M in sales back in the early ’80s. Yes, he was right about “bigger than Cullnet.” The “50 people” was motivated by his dream that we could just have the very, very best developers in the world, and hardly any salespeople—it was just talk. I think he came to appreciate the sales culture later on.
Larry loved to be called “ruthless.” When I asked what was his favorite book, he told me Robber Barons — worth a read even today! And he used to pore over spec sheets for fancy jets he probably thought he could never afford. Funny, I never heard him talk about sailing back then.
I’m not sure how all of this played out later because I wasn’t there. But it was clear, even back in those early days, that Larry had it all: leadership, technical vision, pragmatism, personal salesmanship, frugality, humor, desire to succeed.
I have to think my success in the VC business was due in no small part to seeing Larry Ellison in action back in the day.
Great entrepreneurial DNA is comprised of leadership; technological vision; frugality; and the desire to succeed. World-class founders:
- Have a clear mission and inspire everyone to live it every day
- Are the best salesman in the company
- Hire the smartest people
- Have a technological vision and the ability to convince others that it’s the right thing
- Know it’s about winning customers and don’t spend money on things that aren’t mission-critical
- Are relentless in pursuit of their goals and never take NO for an answer
- Know humor is powerful — and fun!
Describing something as the “Woodstock of…” has taken to mean a one-of-a-kind historic gathering. It happened recently when a group of educators came to the ranch to learn how to teach Lean entrepreneurship to K-12 students.
We Can Do Better than Teaching Students How to Run a Lemonade Stand
Over the last few years it’s become clear that the days of teaching “how to write a business plan” as the cornerstone of university entrepreneurship are over. We now understand the distinction between startups – who search for a business model – versus existing companies – that execute a business plan. Learning how to keep track of inventory and cash flow and creating an income statement and a balance sheet are great skills to learn for managing existing businesses.
But to teach startup entrepreneurship we need to teach students new skills. They need to learn to find answers to questions like: who are my customers, what product features match customer needs, how do I create demand and what metrics matter? Learning these skills requires a very different type of entrepreneurship class, best taught through a hands-on, team-based, experiential approach. (The Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class is the canonical model of such a class, with versions now taught in hundreds of colleges and universities.)
In addition, most programs fail to teach students the distinction between a lifestyle business, small business and scalable startup. While the core principles of lean work the same for building a small business versus a scalable startup, there is a big difference between size, scaling, risk, financing, decision-making, uncertainty, teams, etc.
Entrepreneurial education in grades K-12, if it exists at all still focuses on teaching potential entrepreneurs small business entrepreneurship – the equivalent of “how to run a lemonade stand.” This is fine if what we want to do is prepare our 21st-century students to run small businesses (a valid option), but it does real damage when students leave entrepreneurship classes thinking they’ve learned something about how entrepreneurs who build scalable startups think and operate.
On Fire With A Vision
In 2013, after taking the 2½-day “Lean LaunchPad for Educators” seminar, a few brave educators from Hawken School, a K-12 school in Cleveland, Ohio, decided to change the status quo. They returned to Hawken on fire with a vision of building a completely different sort of entrepreneurship course in their school. They saw the future was a course where students would learn by working on actual problems in the real world instead of sitting in a lecture hall. They adopted the Lean LaunchPad methodology because, as they said, it provides a framework for the chaos of a startup, where nothing is predictable. They found that they could approach teaching entrepreneurship like the scientific method. They ask their students to develop hypotheses and then get out of the classroom to conduct interviews to test them. They learn techniques for innovation, analytical approaches to research, and evidence-based systems for decision-making and problem-solving.
Teaching Other K-12 Educators
I had blogged about what Hawken learned implementing something this radical in High School here, and in middle school here. (Take a minute to look at the posts for context.) Honestly, I had never expected the Lean LaunchPad class to work so well in high school. But an even bigger surprise was when Doris Korda, Hawken’s program director, told me she was getting calls and emails from K-12 teachers across the country asking her to hold a “Hawken Lean LaunchPad for K-12 Educators” workshop.
So the Hawken teaching team took a deep breath and they offered this class – here at the K&S Ranch – so other educators could learn what Hawken is doing and how they’re doing it. Here’s what they were trying to accomplish.
If you can’t see the video click here
Thirty educators from 19 public and private schools throughout the U.S. attended their inaugural workshop.
These educators arrived at the ranch with a palpable sense of urgency, eager for the tools needed to build their own classes. There are no established Lean K-12 curricula, textbooks or handbooks for entrepreneurship programs. The class offered the first set of Lean educators’ materials anywhere. It took the attendees through the basics of Lean and how to build the class at their own schools.
The Hawken folks knew that in the back of the minds of other educators there was going to be the question, “Will this really work with my students? Can I really get them out of the classroom and expect real learning?” In what I thought was a stroke of genius, the Hawken team brought seven Hawken students who had taken the lean entrepreneurship class to help teach this educators course. These students told the attendees real world stories of how the class changed their lives and offered input and advice about what worked and didn’t for them.
The energy at the ranch was off the charts. Every minute was filled with talk about how to build this new model of learning and how to use LLP to encourage students to think creatively and analytically.
The attendees went back to their schools armed with a methodology and sample curriculum to develop their own entrepreneurship courses and put what they learned into practice. Some will take what they learned and apply Lean entrepreneurial principles to create innovate STEM programs and/or to encourage the growth of entrepreneurial ecosystems beyond school walls.
Here’s what some of them had to say about the experience:
If you can’t see the video click here
Jeremy Wickenheiser, a high school teacher with the Denver School of Science and Technology, a STEM public school serving 6,500 students, summed up the remarks we heard again and again: “This is the beginning of a movement to change how students learn.”
Encouraged by the attendees, Hawken is developing a comprehensive educational program for educators, with workshops on the East and West coasts, an educator’s handbook, and codified systems to help educators build their own experiential, LLP-based K-12 programs.
To learn about the workshops and sign up, click here.
- The old ways of teaching entrepreneurship prepared students for small businesses
- We needed a new educational approach to prepare them for scalable startups
- Using the Lean LaunchPad, the Hawken School developed a successful entrepreneurship program for middle and high school students to do just that
- Now they are teaching other educators how to do the same
How do you figure out what’s the right mix of skills for the co-founders of your startup?
Surprisingly if you’ve filled out the business model canvas you already know who you need.
I was having breakfast with Radhika, an ex-grad student of mine who wanted to share her Customer Discovery progress for her consumer hardware startup. She started by sketching her business model canvas on a napkin, but somehow the conversation quickly shifted to what was really on her mind. “After reading your post on Why Founders Should Know How to Code it looks like web/mobile startups have it easy. They seem to know the right mix of skills on their founding team is a hacker, hustler and designer. But what about for us, a consumer hardware hardware company? Trying to figure out what the right set of co-founders isn’t so clear. How do I decide who I need to have on board on day one? Who can I hire later? And what can I outsource?”
Co-founders Skills are the First Derivative of the Business Model Canvas
I told Radhika this is a perennial question for startups. I had struggled with this one for years. And over time every venture capitalist develops their own gut feel for what makes up a great team in their industry. I said, “If you’ve filled out the business model canvas you already know who you need on your founding team, the answer is staring us in the face.”
She looked at bit puzzled, so I continued to explain…
While most of the early attention in a startup is paid to finding product market fit (the match between value proposition and customer segment on the right-side of the canvas) it’s the left side of the canvas that will tell you what your founding team should look like.
Understanding Activities and Resources Will Help You Spec Your Team
I suggested to Radhika that we start by looking at the canvas box labeled “key activities”. “Activities” is where you define the most important things your company must do to make the rest of your business model work. Activities define the unique expertise your company needs to deliver the value proposition, customers, channels, customer relationships and/or revenue. (If you’re a startup it’s easy to get confused on this step. We don’t need to know your activities for your five-year plan. Just list the Activities needed to get a major early milestone – i.e. cash flow positive, or first million users, regulatory submission/approval, etc.)
For example, if you’re building a mobile app, then the key activities are: app software development, user interface design and demand creation skills. Or if you’re building consumer electronics the key activities might be: low cost hardware design, high volume manufacturing, user interface design, consumer branding and retail distribution. For medical devices it might be mechanical engineering, clinical trials, regulatory approval, freedom to operate (intellectual property) and figuring out a reimbursement strategy.
So What Does this Have to Do With A Founding Team?
Once you establish what activities your company needs to do, the next question is, “how do these activities get accomplished?” i.e. what resources do I need to make the activities happen? The answer to that question is what goes in the “Resources” box on the canvas (and if third parties outside your company are going to provide it, in the Partners box.)
For example, in web and mobile apps most of the resources needed at first are people: a developer (the hacker), a user interface designer, and someone to lead the team and create customer demand and if needed raise capital (the hustler).
In medical device startups these resources are expertise in the basic science, industrial design, human factors, managing Contract Research Organizations, reimbursement, Intellectual Property, and someone to lead the team and raise capital and establish strategic partnerships. Therefore the ideal medical device team might be a physician; engineer; operator; business development/financial analyst.
Are We Missing A Founder?
Once you’ve figured out the activities and resources, you can then ask, “If these activities are crucial in building our company and these resources are the critical people skills need to make them happen. Does anyone on the founding team have these skills? Are we missing a founder? Or can we outsource these activities to Partners?”
Radhika nodded. “I get it” she said, “understanding activities and resources help me identify and then prioritize the skill sets I’ll need, but what about the individual characteristics of the individuals – resilience? tenacity? agility? team work? How much value should I put on co-founders I’ve worked with before?”
I smiled and said, “Figure out what you need first, then we can have another coffee.”
- Figuring out the right founding team starts with listing the critical activities to make the startup successful in the first year or so
- Next, what human resources are necessary to make those activities happen?
- Can these skills be outsourced to partners or are they integral to the DNA of the company?
- If they’re integral to the company’s success, they should be part of the founding team
There have been 2 or 3 courses in my entire education that have changed
the way I think. This is one of those.
Hobart Harris Professor and Chief, Division of General Surgery at UCSF
For the past three years the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps has been teaching our nations best scientists how to build a Lean Startup. Close to 400 teams in robotics, computer science, materials science, geoscience, etc. have learned how to use business models, get out of the building to test their hypotheses and minimum viable product.
However, business models in the Life Sciences are a bit more complicated than those in software, web/mobile or hardware. Startups in the Life Sciences (therapeutics, diagnostics, devices, digital health, etc.) also have to understand the complexities of reimbursement, regulation, intellectual property and clinical trials.
Last fall we prototyped an I-Corps class for life sciences at UCSF with 25 teams. Hobart Harris led one of the teams.
What Hobart learned and how he learned it is why we’re about to launch the I-Corps @ NIH on Oct 6th.
If you can’t see the video click here
Translational medicine will never be the same.